Miami, FL— Jurors Friday cleared R.J. Reynolds of liability for a Florida woman’s death from respiratory disease, after they found her family’s claim time-barred. Sikes v. R.J. Reynolds, 2008-CA000310.
The jury, in Florida’s 11th Circuit, concluded that Joyce Sikes knew or should have known before May 5, 1990 that she suffered from smoking-related respiratory disease. That date is a cutoff for claims in Florida’s “Engle progeny” lawsuits against the nation’s tobacco companies.
Sikes died in 2009 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, after more than a half-century of smoking. Her family contends R.J. Reynolds is responsible by addicting her to cigarettes the company knew were dangerous. The lawsuit is one of thousands of so-called “Engle-progeny” cases, claims spun from a 1990s class action by Florida smokers against the nation’s tobacco companies. After a trial court verdict in favor of the plaintiffs on defective design, fraud, and conspiracy claims, the Florida Supreme Court decertified the class. It ruled individual, so-called “Engle progeny” plaintiffs can recover only if they prove the smoker at the heart of each case was addicted to cigarettes that caused a smoking-related illness. Additionally, the smoker’s illness must have “manifested” between May 5, 1990 and November 21, 1996 to qualify for class membership.
And when Sikes should have known that she had respiratory disease served as a key point of dispute in the nine-day trial. During closings last Thursday, the Sikes family’s attorney, Eaton & Wolk’s Douglas Eaton, reminded jurors of evidence he said showed Sikes was not officially diagnosed with COPD until March 1996. And he contended that a 1987 pulmonary function test indicating Sikes suffered from an “obstructive airway defect” did not amount to a conclusion she had COPD.
“That is not a diagnosis,” Eaton said. “That is a finding of a test and [Sikes’ doctor] did not consider it serious enough to put it on his plan or to tell [Sikes] about it.”
But Reynolds contends Sikes should have known that she had COPD as far back as the 1980s. During Thursday’s closings, King & Spalding’s Antonio Lewis reviewed evidence he said showed Sikes had hallmark symptoms of smoking-related COPD, including shortness of breath and a cough, in the 1980s. He argued that the “obstructive airway defect” described in her 1987 PFT was simply another name for COPD and that, even if her physician did not explain the condition to her, Sikes should have followed up with questions that would have let her know she suffered from COPD.
“She knows every word that’s in the medical record,” Lewis said. “And a reasonable person would have asked the [follow-up] questions and gotten the answers.”
Email Arlin Crisco at email@example.com.
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